BP, state officials deny allegations of safety problems at Prudhoe Bay

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- BP officials say allegations of unsafe operating procedures and understaffing at the Prudhoe Bay oil field are mostly old news that have been addressed.

A letter from anonymous oil field workers claiming that understaffing and a lack routine maintenance is making the oil field prone to leaks and vulnerable to explosions was posted Friday on a Web site by frequent trans-Alaska pipeline critic Chuck Hamel. The allegations also were the subject of a front-page Wall Street Journal story Friday.

''Prudhoe Bay is safe,'' said BP Exploration Alaska spokesman Ronnie Chappell. ''If you look at our safety record over the course of the last seven and half years, you'll see we've made Prudhoe Bay a safer place to work.''

''All of the issues that have been identified thus far have been brought up and are known to us, and have been worked or are in the process of being worked at this time,'' said Bob Malone, BP's regional president for the western United States.

Likewise, state regulators from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees valves questioned in the Web site and the story, expressed confidence in safety procedures in place.

Hamel would not say Friday how many North Slope workers approved the letter.

The letters claim the workplace environment has workers fearing for their lives and that understaffing has left them unable to respond to emergencies in a timely manner.

The letter claims workers can no longer quickly close valves needed to isolate blowouts or major leaks.

The letter claims BP management's priority is cost reduction and the state has a conflict of interest in oversight of safety of workers at Prudhoe Bay.

Reached by phone Friday at his home in Virginia, Hamel especially took issue with remote-control surface safety valves used to shut down wells in an emergency.

BP's cutting back of routine maintenance, and drill site designs that leave valves exposed to arctic conditions, make valves vulnerable to failure, Hamel said. In a test last month at a drilling platform known as G Pad, nine of 30 surface safety valves failed to close in tests conducted by state officials.

Fewer workers on hand and open, outdoor platforms susceptible to snow buildup also mean less chance for workers to reach manually operated valves.

''Is the emergency going to wait for them to get there?'' Hamel asked.

But Chappell said the remote-control surface safety valves, located directly over the wellhead, all are contained in well houses. All are accessible, and if not heated, most are kept warm by the warmth of the oil coming out of the ground, unless the well has been shut in, Chappell said.

He said Hamel may be confusing surface safety valves with BP's open design used for gathering or testing facilities, or skids. BP is shifting toward open skids so natural gas does not accumulate within a building if there's a leak, Chappell said.

''We see the more-open skids as a true safety-enhancing measure,'' Chappell said.

Chappell said BP spends $100 million on maintenance every year. Citing reports of injuries that keep workers away from work, Chappell said Prudhoe Bay is far safer than it was in 1994.

''That kind of performance is not an accident,'' Chappell said. ''It's not a result of being lucky.''

Camy Taylor and Dan Seamount, members of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, whose inspectors oversee the safety valve system on wellheads, said the state requires surface safety valve testing every six months and requires reporting of all tests. Inspectors randomly accompany employees testing valves.

Surveillance rates increase when inspectors detect problems, Taylor said, and inspectors shut down wells if repairs are not made within 24 hours.

Taylor said two wells at G Pad were ordered shut down after the inspection that revealed a 30 percent failure rate, which commissioners call an anomaly.

''The remaining wells that had problems were immediately repaired and passed inspection within 24 hours,'' she said.


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